There we were. Not only stuck ‘slap-bang’ in the middle of our weeks’ intrepid adventures around Normandy – seeking the delights that 1100 years of history had to offer, but we were also stuck on another ubiquitous ‘peripherique’ ,unable to find the right road to Herouville. With a string of European war articles already on my laptop and a memory bank full of other people’s recommendations, I was determined to reach Le Memorial De Caen before we left town (no matter how many ring roads it took).
After a little more to-ing, fro-ing and crossing of tramlines unlawfully, we finally came face to face with the magnificence of the war musuem’s façade. Built in 1988 on the northern side of Caen, this contemporary structure was designed by architect Jacques Millet. The sheer size and beauty of the building commands attention and respect from first sighting. We all drove in with eyes wide. The children jumped out of the car and stood in awe at the sheer scale of the museum and the international flags lined up along the front ; representing each country who fought in World Wars one and Two. It was hard to believe that in the very spot we were standing, men had died for their country nearly seventy years previously.
I had been warned in advance that once inside, the imagery of documentary war footage could prove a little sinister and ‘dark’ for the children at times. This turned out to be very much the case, although infinitely educational.
The museum is designed to present a journey through history from 1918 to modern day, and though incredibly well planned, informative and even relaxing in atmosphere to an adult , this wasn’t always the case for the kids. We spent around 2 ½ hours perusing the photojournalism and original documentary film footage mainly from World War II; some from France, some from Britain. But the most unpleasant of all images took the form of film footage from Warsaw, Poland, exhibiting war victims dying on the streets from starvation and begging in year old rags for clothes. These particular images were undoubtedly upsetting and thought provoking- for any adult, but I had to steer my seven-year old away from parts of the film to avoid nightmares. True life can be stark and the imagery was graphic. It served its purpose in delivering the message of war’s futile cruelties however.
Nevertheless, further along the wing we travelled and found displays dedicated to 20th-century European war history of wider scale. This had the children and adults happily gripped once more. Cabinets of interest displayed unusual artefacts such as Adolph Hitler’s suitcase and the basic gnarled cutlery from a concentration camp. There were objects and items big and small to examine, from an archaic 1930’s radio, to a spitfire dangling from the ceiling in the foyer. One museum wing was even dedicated to a depiction of the American and global role after World War II,adding more of an international feel. Its photo documentaries and exhibits held more appeal to the children, including original posters and comic inlays from the war years. Our tour ended with the Cold War, the construction and collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the assault of military weapons (especially nuclear testing) on the environment. The original curator of this museum (Yves Degraine) was thorough, if nothing else.
As we sat in the delightfully ambient restaurant within the museum a little later, we all reflected on the experience of the museum. Phrases arose such as “ hard-hitting”, “thought-provoking” “ heart-wrenching”. Adjectives such as “ terrifying” “ horrendous” and “cruel” flew around in conversation. The children had loved the array of uniforms from all over the world; they were intrigued by Hitler’s original fallen statue from Berlin and the war planes on display. They had found it exciting in parts,and certainly memorable as a whole.
When we finally left the building, we all fell into a reverent hush automatically…. It was a day which would affect us for a long time to come.